Remembering Mike Mentzer - Part 1

By Rob Drucker

Background

Mike Mentzer was one of the greatest and most knowledgeable bodybuilders of all time. He was also a noted philosopher, a prolific writer, and an established business man. Famous for his Heavy Duty training method, Mentzer influenced thousands of exercise enthusiasts, and he became a leading Renaissance figure in the bodybuilding world.

Mentzer was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 15, 1951. His love affair with the iron game began at age 11. While his mother was shopping, the young boy noticed a bodybuilding magazine at a local newsstand. He immediately was intrigued by the large muscles of the model displayed on the cover. Soon after, Mike's father bought him a barbell set, and the commencement of a long and profitable bodybuilding career was triggered.

By age 18, Mentzer entered and won his first physique contest, the Mr. Lancaster County (Pennsylvania). Not long after this first victory, Mike won the 1970 A.A.U. Mr. Pennsylvania, and he placed 10th in the 1971 A.A.U. Mr. America contest. He also earned second place in the 1971 A.A.U. Teenage Mr. America, winning the most muscular award.

Shortly after competing in the Mr. America contest, Mentzer severely injured his right shoulder, and he was forced to lay off from training for several months. By late 1974, he resumed training, and the following year he placed third in the I.F.B.B. Mr. America, losing to Robby Robinson and Roger Callard.

After a period of very hard training, Mike won the 1976 I.F.B.B. Mr. America title, and the following year he won the I.F.B.B. North American Championships. By 1978, Mentzer had become one of the best bodybuilders in the world, and he earned first place in the I.F.B.B. Mr. Universe contest (World Amateur Championships) with a perfect score of 300. This was the first perfect score in bodybuilding history.

Mr. Heavy Duty would compete in five professional contests during 1979. He placed second in the I.F.B.B. Canada Pro Cup, first in the I.F.B.B. Florida Pro Invitational, third in the I.F.B.B. Night of Champions, second in the I.F.B.B. Mr. Olympia, and second in the I.F.B.B. Pittsburgh Pro Invitational. Mike also won his weight class in the 1979 Mr. Olympia with a perfect score of 300, both he lost the overall contest to Frank Zane who was awarded his third title.

Mentzer vowed to win the 1980 Mr. Olympia, but he found himself on a collision course with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold, who had come out of a five-year retirement, won the Sandow trophy for his sixth time, and Mentzer had to settle for fifth place. Chris Dickerson, Frank Zane, and Boyer Coe finished in second, third, and fourth place, respectively.

After receiving the number five spot at the 1980 Mr. Olympia, Mentzer was furious. He claimed that the contest had been fixed so that Arnold would win. Mentzer also argued that none of the other competitors, nor the majority of the audience, thought that Arnold should have won. In Mike's own words, "There is no way that Arnold Schwarzenegger deserved to win in 1980; not even close." Incidentally, Mike had lost contests before, and he never raised a fuss. However, his placement at the 1980 Mr. Olympia angered him so much that he would never compete on stage again.

The 1980 Mr. Olympia was held in Sydney,Australia. After the event, Mentzer was critical of I.F.B.B. President, Ben Weider. Although Weider prided himself as being a stern leader, Mentzer accused the president of taking a back seat to Arnold. Mentzer complained that the Austrian Oak "seemed to be running things," and as the day proceeded it became very clear that "things weren't the way they should be."

After leaving competitive bodybuilding, Mentzer said that he enjoyed his new position a lot more. He continued to write for Joe Weider and his magazines until 1983, when he left Los Angeles and went to Florida to work for Arthur Jones and Nautilus. Mike's employ at Nautilus lasted only six months, but the former Mr. Universe winner found his employment with Jones very enlightening.

Following his brief work for Jones and Nautilus, Mentzer traveled across Europe, and he performed numerous bodybuilding exhibitions and seminars. Mike stayed across the ocean for about 1 1/2 years, and then he came back to the States and published and edited Workout For Fitness, a magazine devoted to general fitness and soft-core bodybuilding.

Mentzer's magazine folded shortly after its launch, and the great bodybuilder went back to work for Joe Weider. This time, however, Mentzer did free-lance writing, and he rarely saw nor spoke to the famous publisher.

In 1989, Mentzer started his own personal training business, and he continued to write for Weider. Mike's training business started out very slowly, and this greatly surprised him. Mentzer figured that with his name recognition and visibility, his business would take off easily and rapidly. However, after just four or five months, Mike became so discouraged by his inability to attract clients that he thought about giving up as a personal trainer. Then, for reasons he could not explain, Mentzer's training business started to flourish. By 1993, the large bodybuilder had over 400 clients, and Mentzer would revise his implementation of Heavy Duty based on his experience training and observing them.

To a large extent, Mentzer's business was probably helped by his articles in Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazines. Additionally, word had spread that some top bodybuilders reported making outstanding progress while training under the guidance of Mike. These top bodybuilders included Aaron Baker, David Dearth, David Paul, Lee Labrada, and Dorian Yates.

Dorian Yates in particular turned out to be a blessing for Mentzer. The massive bodybuilder recognized the usefulness and validity of the Heavy Duty training method, and he was quick to give Mentzer credit for helping him win his first two two Mr. Olympia titles. Mike called Dorian Yates "the most gracious and the greatest of all." Mentzer also considered Yates to be among the most articulate and intellectual of professional bodybuilders. In addition, Mike described Yates as benevolent, amenable and open to fans, and genuine as a human being. "He doesn't have the attitude that he is superior by virtue of having bigger muscles than anybody else," Mentzer told Bill Phillips during an interview in 1993.

The Education of Mike Mentzer

Between the ages of 12 and 15, Mentzer's workout program was drawn from an instruction booklet that came with the set of weights his dad bought for him. The booklet had him training three times per week and performing just three sets per body part. This formula proved so successful that the young bodybuilder's weight shot up from 95 pounds to 165 pounds after just three years of training. By age 15, Mike had become quite muscular, and his ambition to become a champion bodybuilder had fully materialized.

Yearning to become a bodybuilding champion, Mentzer reasoned that he had to start training just like the title winners that were featured in the muscle magazines. Following the lead of his idol, Bill Pearl, and other established physique stars, the young bodybuilder started training six days per week for up to three hours per workout! Once on this marathon training protocol, Mentzer's gains quickly diminished. However, a slow down in muscle growth did not immediately alarm the determined bodybuilder, because he had repeatedly read in nearly all the muscle publications that it was natural for gains to decelerate after making progress.

By the age of 19, Mike's progress had come to a halt. He was now in the Air Force and working 12-hour days. His long work schedule, along with his desire to spend more time with his girlfriend, was making it increasingly more difficult for him to justify spending so many hours in the gym, especially given that he was making little or no progress. Mike reasoned that since three hours a day of training was not working, then four or more hours a day of training might be required to trigger progress again. This belief agonized Mentzer, for he did not want to become a gym rat and end up putting his social and intellectual life at risk.

In 1971, on a fateful night in York, Pennsylvania, Casey Viator, a 19-year-old bodybuilder, became the youngest person to ever win the A.A.U. Mr. America contest. Viator's development was extraordinary, and he was often favorably compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Casey trained nothing like Arnold did. While the Austrian Oak was training six days per week for up to four hours per day, Viator was training no more than three hours per week!

At the 1971 Mr. America, Mike Mentzer earned 10th place, and he became acquainted with winner Casey Viator. Casey discussed his training program with Mike, and he explained that he was training under the direction of Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus machines. Casey's success inspired Mentzer, for it gave the Heavy-Duty man hope that he too might be able to win the coveted title one day and be able to live a normal life.

At the suggestion of Viator, one evening Mentzer placed a telephone call to Arthur Jones. At the time of the call, the Nautilus inventor was not home, so the aspiring bodybuilder left a message. The next morning, at 2:00 AM to be exact, Jones returned Mentzer's call while the Mr. America hopeful was in a deep state of sleep. The loud rings of the telephone awakened Mike just enough for him to answer the call. Barely conscious, the large man uttered "hello" into the telephone. However, Jones quickly brought Mike's senses back to life with a powerful oratory about productive bodybuilding. Mike explains in his book Heavy Duty,

So awe-inspiring was his fiery oratory that the leaden fumes of my somnambulistic stupor evaporated in short order. For well over an hour, I listened in rapt attention as Jones explained to me, in the most scrupulously objective language imaginable, the cause-and-effect relationship between intense exercise and muscular growth; and why, in light of the fact that the body's ability to tolerate such demanding exercise is limited, high-intensity exercise had to be brief and infrequent.

After his conversation with Arthur Jones, Mike realized that he was not expert that he had thought he was. He came to the realization that his model of bodybuilding needed revision. Hitherto, Mentzer had attained most of his training information from the muscle magazines. However, he came to understand that these publications are not sacred scriptures, and like all other sources of information, they must be read with a critical eye.

Arthur Jones told Mentzer that 95% of what is published on ALL subjects is "hogwash". After much critical thought and evaluation of this idea, Mike would later conclude that the Nautilus inventor had been "charitable". He would exclaim that "98% of everything you hear or read is hogwash."

The Theory of High Intensity Exercise

Prior to talking with Arthur Jones, Mentzer was stuck in a training rut. For several months, he had made little or no progress, despite training three hours per workout, six days per week. Like most bodybuilders, Mentzer tried one training regimen after another in hopes that somehow he would stumble onto something that would trigger new muscle growth. But, nothing seemed to work, until Mike was exposed to something radically different - high intensity training.

During their lengthy phone conversation, Arthur Jones explained to Mike that all people are anatomically and physiologically essentially the same, and that muscle growth in all of us is governed by the same specific laws and actions. If this wasn't true, Jones argued, than the science of medicine could not exist as a viable discipline, and people could not respond to medical treatment or surgery in a predictable fashion.

Based on the premise that muscle growth in each of us is governed by the same specific laws and actions, Jones explained to Mentzer that there could be only one valid theory of exercise, and it was the theory of high intensity training. The Theory of High Intensity Training is based on three key principles that must be adhered to in order to achieve optimum muscle growth. These three principles are:

  1. High intensity training must take place before the muscle-growth process can be triggered.
  2. The training must be brief.
  3. The training must be infrequent.

Jones defined intensity as the percentage of possible momentary muscular effort being exerted, and he believed the greater the muscular effort, the greater the stimulation of muscle growth. A comparison between sprinters and long-distance runners demonstrates his point. Sprinters run as hard as they possibly can for relatively short distances. Their all-out effort on the track means that they engage in high-intensity work. The duration of their running is also brief, because it is impossible to maintain an intense pace for a long period of time. In contrast, long-distance runners run for relatively long periods of time, but with little intensity. They can endure for hours at a time, but their muscular power output (work per unit time) is very small.

If you compare the muscular development between sprinters and long-distance runners, you will find that sprinters typically have large and well developed legs, while the muscles of long-distance runners are usually stringy and thin. This is exactly what you would expect to find based on the theory of high intensity training.

Jones understood that the human body has a limited capacity to recover from exercise stress. Furthermore, he understood that although high-intensity training is required to stimulate an increase of muscular size and strength, sufficient rest and recovery must first take place before such growth can occur. As such, Arthur Jones arbitrarily suggested to his clients that they train only three times per week, and that they perform a total of only 12 to 15 sets per workout.

Most bodybuilders train using what Mentzer referred to as the "blind, non-theoretical volume approach". They have in their heads the almost childlike notion that more is always better than less. While, to a limited extent, this is true with regards to endurance training, it is generally not true when it comes to building bigger and stronger muscles. Yet, more often than not, bodybuilders treat a slowdown in progress by doing extra sets, more exercises, and training more often. This is precisely what Mike Mentzer did prior to his telephone conversation with Arthur Jones. And, as a result, his progress ceased almost to a halt. In fact, Mike had become so frustrated by his lack of progress that he considered quitting bodybuilding just weeks before meeting Casey Viator at the 1971 Mr. America contest.

Fortunately, after talking with Casey Viator and Arthur Jones, Mentzer had a renewed interest in bodybuilding. He gave up training with the non-theoretical volume approach, and he started training the high-intensity way advocated by Jones. His progress was immediate, and for the first time in months, he was gaining muscle again. Unfortunately, Mentzer severely injured his right shoulder not too long after his commencement of his new workout approach. This injury forced him to layoff from training for about three years. Then, by late 1974, Mike was able to resume training. What was different this time, however, is that Mentzer steadily made progress beyond his wildest expectations, and he went on to easily win the 1976 I.F.B.B. Mr. America contest, beating such greats as Roger Callard and Danny Padilla.

Mike's Views on What Bodybuilding Should Provide

Mike Mentzer believed that bodybuilding must involve much more than just building big muscles if happiness and a sense of fulfillment are to be attained. Too many bodybuilders, he warned, find themselves empty inside and beset by interpersonal conflict, insecurities, and self doubt even after they build the muscles of their dreams. The reason, according to Mike, is that they fail to develop other aspects of their lives while building up their strength. Reflecting upon many top bodybuilders he had met and worked with, Mentzer once said, "They are self arrested intellectually. They're no further ahead at the age of 30 or 40 mentally than they were 10 or 15 years ago when they started [training]."

Mike also believed that the key to happiness is to explicitly establish goals and to enjoy the intellectual process of achieving them. The intellectual process includes acquiring new and relevant knowledge, becoming a more critical thinker, learning by trial and error, developing new skills, and expanding one's horizons. It also includes developing a sense of mastery, self esteem, and efficacy that can only be attained by making continual increments of self improvement and by recognizing that you are a more effective person, not merely by achieving a final result, such as earning a certain amount of money, or acquiring an 18-inch arm.

Mentzer also stressed that the endeavor of establishing a goal should be rewarding in and of itself. With regards to physical development, the former Mr. Olympia contestant observed, "There is a lot of self satisfaction to be derived from recognizing that you are able to discipline yourself and use a certain amount of knowledge to take yourself from point A to point C, to take your body from being average or below average to whatever it ultimately might be."

References

  1. Mentzer, Mike, Heavy Duty, Published by Mike Mentzer, 1993
  2. Mentzer Mike and Phillips, Bill, Mike Mentzer Interview, Muscle Media 2000 Audio Tape, 1993
  3. Mentzer, Mike, Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body, Published by Mike Mentzer, 1996
  4. Mentzer, Mike with Little, John, High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way, Contemporary Books, 2003

New: The Tidbit Page

Tips, News, Motivation, Reader Contributions, Q&A, and More

Do you have something you would like to share with MOI readers around the world, perhaps a cool photo of your gym, a comment, a tip, or something else? If so, please email the editor via robdrucker@musclesofiron.com or use this contact form. Selected submissions may be edited for length and clarity.